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The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

3/5. Survey of the history of trauma treatment and current state of research.

First off, if you want a book on trauma – I mean a really good book on trauma that imparts an understanding of what it can feel like – go with Herman's Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. It's dated in terms of treatment modalities, but it is still incredibly relevant and useful.

This book, on the other hand. It's not bad. It gives a lot of good historical background, gathered first hand throughout the author's career. And it makes a compelling and passionate case that the PTSD diagnosis is inappropriate and inaccurate as applied to what he instead calls Developmental Trauma Syndrome or the experience of trauma in childhood. It's a really important argument with a lot of implications for education, the criminal justice system, and family law.


But I cannot respect a mental health professional who has so much disdain for disabled identities. He goes on at length about how important it is to establish the Developmental Trauma Syndrome diagnostic label, discusses how labels become part of our discourse about ourselves, and then condemns anyone who adopts their diagnosis as part of their identity. Putting aside all the reasons why people do, like self-respect, and community-building, and I don't know, the part where many diagnoses are life long. He is just so repulsed by the idea of psychological disability that he rejects it as a valid identity. He's like one of those parents who refuses to tell their child the child is disabled. You know the ones – they'll get the child treatment, but they won't ever, ever talk about the disability with the kid because they don't want the kid to "feel different." Spoiler: kid feels different. Kid also knows parents are ashamed and repulsed by part of kid's self. Pretty sure victims of trauma are just as good at picking up on that kind of ablism.
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The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us HumanThe Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I've never read Ramachandran in long form before, and I don't think I ever will again. This stuff is right up my tree – popular neurology – but . . . no. I started having a sinking feeling at "Over the years I have worked with hundreds of patients afflicted, though some feel they are blessed, with a great diversity of unusual and curious neurological disorders." Oh really said my eyebrows, because that could either be a careless turn of phrase, or a blunt dismissal of the social model of disability and the understanding of disability as anything other than a curse. I forged on with an open mind.

Spoilers: it was the second one.

A few of the lowlights: a lot of clinically accurate yet deeply disturbing discussion of autism in which Ramachandran all but questions the place of autistic people in the human race; repeated descriptions of how brave it is for patients to try to remain happy despite their afflictions (I mean, can you imagine actually being happy with a disability!); an endorsement of Cure Autism Now, which I will put in the correct disability politics context by explaining that my hiss and recoil was exactly the same you'd make if you were a lifelong liberal who discovered the person advising you on political facts was an ardent Tea Partier.

So yeah. Really wish I hadn't given him any money.

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The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from ViolenceThe Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a long-standing . . . psychological investment, let's say, in the science of violence: classifying it, predicting it, recovering from it. This book spent a bit of time talking about the epidemic of violence, which needs very little more illustration than to say that three out of every four American women will in their lifetimes be the victim of a violent assault, and a large portion of those assaults will be sexual. This is not something I need convincing on. I often find myself in a packed and silent elevator car down to a train station, or sitting around a boardroom table, and I'll listen to the men around me (hello, massively male-dominated field in a male-dominated profession) and think, which one of you is a rapist? Which one of you has beaten someone unconscious? Though to be statistically accurate, I should often be asking how many, not which one?

Anyway. Rambling. This book is about the prediction of violence. The things you -- mostly women -- can do to avoid being the victims of assaults, rapes, robberies, kidnappings, beatings. And not in the way where it's telling you how to dress or where to walk, but in the way where we can all be smarter about the things we notice, and how we react to them. Most of this was old ground for me, but it's presented here more effectively than I've seen anywhere else.

It's not perfect though. A few of the more obviously problematic things that jumped out at me:

*De Becker doesn't really get socialized gendered compliance, at least not all the time. He'll go from this incredibly smart discussion of how the ways women are socialized to say no to men -- "I don't want to be seeing anyone right now," rather than "no, I don't want to date you," -- can be very dangerous because they open the door to negotiation. De Becker will be making the sharp and correct point that women aren't actually allowed to say no in many scenarios, but that it's engrained so deep, we don't notice. But then he'll turn around in another chapter and say that he can't give a checklist for how to behave if you are in the power of a violent offender, just use your intuition, it will save you. The first part is true enough; there are too many scenarios at play, too many variables, and the need for appeasement in one situation can be the need for hard, relentless resistance in another. But the second part? Hang on. We know women have been socialized to react in maladaptive and often dangerous ways to men, and yet we're supposed to rely purely on reflexive response in moments of great danger? Intuition may be smart, and it may in extremis be smarter than social conditioning, but how many of us actually know how to respond to that intuition?

Don't get me wrong, it's happened to me. That moment where your brain disconnects and your body moves all on its own and you are not afraid. You aren't anything. You aren't even you. And you only think later after it's over, I could have died. That is really powerful shit, right there, and De Becker's right, it's smart. But it's not a given, and forgive me if I suspect that people who have been trained from birth not to credit their own wants and needs might be capable of smothering the reactions that could save their lives.

*De Becker really misses the boat in his section on distinguishing fear from worry. Fear being the useful, smart, intuitive impulse and worry being the habituated, often projective and pointless activity that just makes us needlessly paranoid in situations where we don't have to be. He really wants to divide things up into clean, accurate, instinctive fear at the sight of a particular threat gesture, and learned, socialized fear that is not driven by unconscious data. Okay, sure.

But in which category do racially-motivated fears go? Studies consistently show that white Americans have a physiological fear response to the sight of African-American men in particular situations. Hell, some of the subconscious word association trials show a prevalence of fear associations just at the micro-visual flash of an African-American face on a computer screen. And you don't need a study for that, you just need to go into any major city with a couple of comfy white habitual suburbanites.

So, seriously, what category does that go in? It's not very smart or useful. Aside from just being shitty, I mean. African-American men might commit more violent crime than their white peers (I know, it seems like the sort of statistical assertion that should be arguable, but it turns out it's not) but that violence is directed overwhelmingly at other African-American men. Most people, in most circumstances, are in far more danger from a member of their own race.

But we have a racially-motivated fear response. So how are people supposed to tell the difference between that sort of pre-conscious racist social conditioning and true, useful intuition? De Becker doesn't say, and actually given the nearly pathological lack of race discussions from this book about violence, I suspect he doesn't know.

*I laughed out loud when De Becker confidently proclaimed, in discussing post violence analysis of pre-violence indicators, that "if it is in your head now, it was in your head then." Ahahaha *gasp*. Oh, God, that is hilarious. And so amazingly wrong. Eye witness accounts are notoriously inaccurate, and victim witness accounts are noticeably worse. In fact, one of the physiological results of high-adrenaline for many people is blurred perception and memory. Add that to the understandable and overwhelming impulse of victims to explain it, to tabulate all the ways they should have seen it coming, and you have a recipe for incredibly unreliable recollections.

De Becker's right -- a lot of violence is not senseless, and most of it is predictable if you process the signs. If you see them in the first place. But sometimes we don't see. And the way De Becker tries to teach readers to process in-the-moment what he can only reconstruct in example post facto strikes me as pretty problematic.

Still. It's a great book, and I do highly recommend it. It's just the race thing. He doesn't deal with it -- I suspect he can't -- and that's a pretty big flaw.

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The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryThe Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book about psychopaths that I actually liked, minor miracle, and that made me think a lot about compassion.

Okay, qualifications – the book is more about “the madness industry” – the complex of media and medicine and science and big pharma and fucking weirdness that informs our understanding of people who are mad. It’s a wandering book, tracking Ronson’s haphazard introduction to psychopathy, to spotting psychopaths, and then onto a survey of madness criminal, madness florid and newsworthy, madness very sad. It’s about the stigma and sexiness of madness – Ronson is wondering on a meta level, as a journalist, why some people’s madness is culturally fascinating and others’ is repulsive. He manages to talk about the utterly crap job psychiatry does at diagnostics and some of the fringiest of the fringe elements of conspiracy theory with the same inquisitive interest. It’s a really great book; I think the one major point Ronson missed was failing to really dig in to the validity of our diagnostic categorizations. He wonders how many people are “mad” by virtue of being too difficult, too inconveniently odd, but misses the deeper point that socioeconomics and race play an enormous and terrifying role in diagnostic categorization.

Anyway, who talks about books in book reviews anymore?

One of my favorite moments here was when Ronson, becoming a little alarmed and disenchanted by the power of the diagnostician, says to someone that it sounds like he’s talking about these people – psychopaths – like they aren’t human. His interlocutor doesn’t really know how to answer that, because it’s absolutely true.

And yes. Yes yes yes, this is what it is like. Psychiatric professionals, true crime authors, journalists, cop shows – they talk about psychopaths like they are animals, and often like they should be put down. And when someone gets uncomfortable with this, the response is usually something like, “well, but he doesn’t have any compassion for you.” Because psychopaths don’t, generally – that’s pretty much the definition, right? Inability to connect, inability to learn from adverse stimuli – an inability to learn social norms more bluntly, a lack of understanding of others’s pain, sometimes enjoyment of it.

And I just . . . that’s not my definition of compassion. It doesn’t exist just for the object. I could get into all the humanist and philosophical reasons, but I imagine someone smarter has done this better (I’m pretty sure there’s an entire subgenre of European postwar writing on this). My point is even woo-wooier.

I know that Ashley X cannot appreciate or understand my compassion for her and the terrible thing that was done to her, but I’ve spent years giving it while respected academics explain in the New York Times why I shouldn’t, why she wasn’t wronged at all because the rules don’t apply to her. She’s different. She’s less than human – it’s not even subtext for some people in this argument.

Compassion can be transgressive, and it can definitely be a political act.

And I have a crazy theory that sometime in the next few hundred years, our treatment of criminals is going to become one of those society-redefining arguments. Our justice system is a travesty of racial and economic oppression, a massive financial drain, and largely ineffective. We punish like no one’s business, and funny thing, it doesn’t really work. Just makes people feel good. And at the same time we’re just barely beginning to muck about in the sort of neuro-fiddling science that might, one day, let us, you know, actually have a corrections system. (And won’t that be a whole new and scary can of worms). And sometime in the next few centuries these things are going to collide, and we’re going to have one hell of a cultural paroxysm about, well. About how we have no compassion for those with no compassion.

At least I really hope so.

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Apotemnophilia: Information, Questions, Answers, and Recommendations About Self-demand Amputation Apotemnophilia: Information, Questions, Answers, and Recommendations About Self-demand Amputation by Gregg M. Furth

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A short book on the etiology and presentation of what is now called Body Integrity Identity Disorder, a condition analogous to Gender Identity Disorder where a person feels that their real and proper body is not the one they have, but one missing a specific limb. Thus self-demand surgical amputation of healthy limbs, and occasionally just self-amputation full-stop.

Disappointingly poorly written as a technical matter. Twice as long and half as informative as some of the medical journal articles I've been reading, though I will give them credit for the extensive reproduction of comments and subjective impressions from BIID patients that you really can't get in the medical literature.

Also, the primary author is a Jungian, and I am really, really not, so there's that. You start going on at me about psychic archetypes, and I'll nod along, sure, because I have a literature degree and I appreciate a good narrative as much as the next girl. But in the pragmatics of neuropsychological research? You've got me for about two pages, then we're done.

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How Doctors Think How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Survey of errors in doctor decision-making, with no surprises for anyone who knows anything about cognition. Light on data, heavy on anecdotes and interviews. Doctors make mistakes, misread tests, prefer diagnoses peculiar to their specialties. Basically, duh.

I'm being slightly snide here because I'm annoyed by how completely Groopman fails to talk about the effect of actual medical bias. I mean, most of this book is about the psychological dynamics of doctor/patient relationships, but completely fails to talk about the way patient physical disability, race, and gender can effect care? Hint: it's a lot.

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Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream by Carl Elliott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Bioethicist talks about "enhancement technologies," which apparently boils down to popular psychopharmacology with occasional side trips into artificial voices and body modification. Profoundly rambley and not what I was expecting, but enjoyable enough in an eclectic sort of way. Still, he didn't say anything about drugs I hadn't heard before, he just had more interesting stories about urban planning and the history of fugue states and *hand gestures* I don't even know what.

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Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by Temple Grandin

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Came for the autism, stayed for the Labradors. Background: Temple Grandin is an animal behavior specialist. She's single-handedly revolutionized the humane treatment of slaughter animals in the United States. She's also a vital force in the neurodiversity movement. This book argues broadly that animal cognition shares some key features with autistic cognition – picture-thinking, working memory shortages, detail-fixation, etc. It also takes a fascinating tour through what we know about animal emotion, consciousness, and cognition.

Awesome, on multiple levels. The animal psychology wasn't just interesting (though it really is!) but also useful for those of us who handle a working dog. And also, Temple Grandin is one of those people who manages to make her life a sustained act of advocacy, which is something I aspire to on my very best days. This book spends some time explicitly explaining autistic cognition, but it more subtly is autistic in a way that just says, here's my brain. It's not like yours. Just so you know.

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Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman

Ah-ha, there it is. I've been looking for this book for about five years now. Not this book, I mean, but a book that frames a discussion of post trauma pathologies with feminist discourse without being . . . what's the word I'm looking for? Annoying. This book does that. It's fascinating, actually, starting in with the history of trauma's emergence into public consciousness in connection with successive political movements (secular humanism, postwar relief, feminism). Then on through symptomology, case histories, and treatments. There are two central arguments. The one about trauma research and treatment as politically charged acts isn't particularly new to me, but it's one of those things that doesn't so much need repeating as shouting from the rooftops. And the argument that the complex post traumatic response to prolonged violence is pathologically distinct from classic single-trauma PTSD is also familiar, but nicely presented.

The whole thing is solid, deftly told, agonizing in places. And she talks about soldiers and battered women in ways that are illuminating, rather than pat or oppositional. This is one of those books about gender that spends all it's time talking about people, if you know what I mean. The only flaw isn't actually one – this was written in the mid-90's, so it's missing both a boatload of pharmacological and neurological data and insights on the most recent developments in the political aspects of trauma.

Highly recommended.
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Stumbling on Happiness.

Not self-help. One of those "a psychology professor explains some aspect of behavior to us with quirky examples and simplified study synopses and sells a lot of books" books. A pretty good one, too. Principally about why it is that we aren't very good at projecting future sources of happiness. Practically speaking, why we suck at picking spouses and careers. Except when we don't, and why that might be, too.

Pretty interesting all around, and I generally find this category of books frustratingly surfacey. But I read neuroscience textbooks for fun, so the hell do I know? Anyway, nicely put together, sufficiently thoughtful while still covering a lot of ground, occasionally even funny. Good times.
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A book I should have liked, and really didn't. Nebulously annoying exploration of how too many choices – in selecting a car, a sweater, a career – can actually be psychologically unhealthy. It could have been pretty cool, too, with about six layers more depth and minus the barely restrained glee at being a contrarian about the utility of American freedom for the sake of being a contrarian rather than any real insight. (Not that I have a problem with the content, mind you, because it's probably pretty accurate. That's just beside the point).

That, and any psychologist who starts out by bemoaning how terrible it is that we have hundreds of TV channels to choose from because that means no one will be watching the same thing ever and we won't have water cooler conversation is, well, too out-of-touch with how popular culture actually works for me to adequately express.
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Three memoirs from the special education teacher who specializes in emotionally disturbed children and elective mutism. Two of these books follow Hayden’s usual school year format (it’s like Harry Potter, only with autism, learning disabilities, and child abuse), while Twilight Children recounts part of her time working in a hospital children’s psychiatric unit. They are blunt, painful, gorgeous books which, despite all advertising and jacketing efforts of her publisher to ruin them, have no obnoxious political or emotional agenda other than to just tell a story. Hayden writes about a nine-year-old raped so many times her personality has fractured, a six-year-old with brain lesions which leave her IQ in tact but completely destroy her ability to recognize written symbols, a twelve-year-old pregnant Catholic school refugee shoved into Hayden’s class because there just isn’t anywhere else for her. She writes about kids who don’t talk, kids who can’t learn, kids who are violent, kids who got better and kids who never would and kids who could have, but no one got there in time.

I think the most telling thing is that these books are so very fitting. Hayden is pragmatic in everything she does. That’s the definition of good special education – “if it works, do it, and to hell with how it’s supposed to look.” She is creative and thoughtful as a teacher, and she brings some of that quality to her writing. It lends these books a beauty probably not unlike what Hayden sees in her students and patients – it’s not there to teach us a lesson and it’s not there to have a moral, it just is. I particularly recommend Somebody Else’s Kids, which confronts some of the unforeseen repercussions of the big mainstreaming law without zealotry or preaching (very, very rare, let me tell you).

And I just like Hayden herself, her competence, her caring, her obsession. I had someone like her in my life once, someone who recognized that there was more to her job than just ensuring that I got through a public school system which was not at all designed to nurture people like me, but also to help me come out as whole and sane as possible. I’m thinking about this a lot, on the verge of going back for another degree, and being reminded that there are people like Hayden out in the world working with kids a third my age helps.

Plus, they’re just good books.
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A compilation of multi-authored journal articles from the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin and other sources, discussing various facets of sexual homicide and tracking the statistical results of a thirty-six person offender interview study. The book is intended for law enforcement officers and legal professionals, and the topics range from offender characteristics to crime classifications to post-offense behavior to recommended interview techniques, the role of the sketch artist in an investigation, and possible outcomes for secondary victims (family and friends).

And can I just say that of course it would be yesterday that I’d run into an old friend I spent a lot of time flirting with but haven’t seen in a while, who knows me well enough to recognize my Bookport and ask, all engaged personal interest, “what are you reading?”

Anyway. A very general sort of book, with a lot of good information but not a terrible amount of depth. Douglas is the headliner, but the ego is notably absent. Two articles stood out; the first, written in 1985, adorably trumpets the wonder of modern technology; there’s a computer at Quantico and a computer in DC, and they can send information back and forth between them. Aww!

The other is an article from The Journal of Interpersonal Violence, which draws on the offender interviews and other data to try and outline the optimal response to sexual assault. It’s a deeply confused piece which seems as if it wants to be directed to victims but isn’t, and offers up such useful advice for moments of extreme terror for your life as, “If he responds by immediately ceasing his aggressive/violent behavior and is willing to engage the victim in conversation, he is also likely to be an exploitative rapist and the victim should use verbal strategies. If the attacker continues to escalate aggression/violence, the victim should attempt to begin verbal dissuasive techniques.”

It’s not like it’s a bad idea, delineating the occasions when resisting is a good strategy, and when it will only increase risk. In reality, these are determinations women do make on their own, sometimes with startling accuracy. But the presentation is hilariously inept.

A good book, but not terribly revealing. Starting point, not the meat of research.
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Quite an astonishing array of people whose opinions I respect have been talking about this book in quiet, awed tones for over a year, before it was even published. I held off in that vaguely suspicious way you do when something has been so thoroughly hyped to you and you really hope it’s just half that good. But prompted by the always timely [ profile] ellen_fremedon, I finally took a deep breath and plunged in.

Yes, it is not quite as good as I’d been told, but orders of magnitude more brilliant than anyone had conveyed. Which statement will be very puzzling to anyone who hasn’t read the book, but just take my word for it: it makes perfect sense. And yes, this book will deservedly win this year’s Hugo, if the rumblings are right. Sorry, Temeraire, you’ll have another shot, I’m sure.

So. The actual review. Summarizing this book is quite difficult without being far too parsimonious or far too verbose. It’s SF, and there ain’t much squishy here. It’s told by Siri Keeton, informational synthesist, professional observer, member of a tiny human expedition sent out to meet an unknown alien presence at the outskirts of the solar system. Mostly human – it’s hard to classify people living on the “bleeding edge” of the future, with edited brains and altered bodies. They meet the Scramblers, an alien race more frighteningly alien than anything I’ve ever seen in any other science fiction. There they are reminded of the eminent hackability of the human brain, what a fragile machine it really is, and that’s just the start.

It’s hard, because I want everyone to read this book, though I know the majority of people won’t get past the first fifty pages. It’s not just the hard SF elements, not the dense but oddly beautiful prose. This book just requires a lot. It’s packed tight with theory, and I don’t know what it would be like going in without at least a conversant background in biology, psychology, neurology, a bit of physics. It’s just that, when the boom swings around about three-quarters of the way in and smacks you on the forehead, you really should be leaning forward eagerly into it. And I don’t think that’ll work if you’re struggling to keep up with the ologies. The science isn’t background here, it’s not ambiance, and the unprepared reader would probably be very puzzled by an obscure and strangely technical alien encounter book.

Because you’ve got to do the work to get the payoff. It’s one of those arguments which is reduced out of all reasonableness by reduction at all – that’s why it’s not made often. Watts called this book a “thought experiment.” It’s about intelligence existing in the absence of sentience, of that conscious I first person narrator. About the brilliance of our brainstems; they are faster than us, smarter than us, perfectly capable of surviving just fine without upper management – that’s what the brainstem is for, after all, surviving. Blindsight starts there, and then bypasses the perennial bottleneck of what consciousness is, and goes straight on to what it’s for. Evolutionarily. Biologically. I think its conclusions are wrong. Well, I hope its conclusions are wrong. But it’s brilliant none the less.

You invest so much in it, don't you? It's what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it's what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself.
Wise Man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it's for?

Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you've forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterwards, unconscious
the whole time. Maybe nobody's told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.

Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity's already halfway down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second
before your conscious self 'chose' to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary—almost an afterthought—
to the homunculus behind your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality:
it reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.

But it's not in charge. You're not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn't share living space with the likes of you.

Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively human pursuits that must surely
rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that's what sentience would be for— if scientific breakthroughs didn't spring fully-formed from the subconscious
mind, manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night's sleep. It's the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking
about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it.

A fascinating, difficult book. I was right there all the way, but then again I took a lot less convincing than many readers probably will. That, and I was highly entertained by the quick and dirty tour of some of the stranger stops in the DSM-IV (oh right, there’s Cotard’s Syndrome. Love that one). Not for everyone by its very nature, and also by necessity populated with strange, uncuddly people and stranger situations, so that a casual, surface read of a typical hard SF story may or may not be enjoyable. I don’t know, and the inaccessibility is not a flaw, it’s a necessity. I do know that I admire the single-mindedness required to write so narrowly, so smartly, and that it's definitely worth the work, if you're positioned for it.

ETA: And I almost forgot. Blindsight is in fact available on the web, under a Creative Commons License. Yes, even though it was only published six months ago. Sweet, eh?

This is also cool because the notes on the online version are apparently more substantial than the dead tree version. And the notes are made of awesome. Vampire genetics! Apes and the theory of mind! Evolution without genes!
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It’s impossible to talk about the history of the brain – about the history of medicine at large, actually – without also talking about religion and politics and philosophy. Mostly religion, as you might expect. This book tackles all of the above with admirable aplomb, starting off with one of my favorite childhood anecdotes about the ancient Egyptian burial custom of removing the brain through the nostrils because it was clearly a useless organ (how can you not love that; it’s totally disgusting!). We hop on through the first anatomists, sojourn a bit with alchemy, pause for natural philosophy, and then settle down in fifteenth-century England for the majority of the book. This is a bit too broad to be classified as a biography of Thomas Willis (the father of neuroscience), but it’s a close thing. It’s a thorough, ranging but focused account of the history of the brain and how we conceive of our conscious minds, our souls, ourselves as animals. And a whole lot of familiar names keep popping up, like Hobbes and Locke (a doctor, which I had forgotten) and the two Roberts (Boyle and Hooke) who are better known for their work in physics and chemistry, but who actually made enormous contributions to the understanding of human respiration and blood oxygenation.

Well-researched, entirely lucid, a bit rambling but in the good way. There’s a whole hell of a lot of ground to cover when you start out before we even realized the brain was the seat of consciousness, not to mention the many theologians and anatomists alike who maintained the soul by its nature could not be physical. This book covers most of that very well, particularly in detailing the ebb and flow of experimentation through England’s revolution and restoration. I was unsatisfied by the sudden 350 year leap made in the last chapter, and the rushed treatment of modern nuropharmacology and the potential of MRI studies (what is the brain doing when confronted with some of those awful moral philosophy questions – in situation x you can save five people by killing one, what do you do?). I honestly would have been happier had the book simply maintained its historical focus and stopped in the fifteenth century. Which would have left the “and how it changed the world” part mostly to inference, but I almost would have preferred inference to the rushed and vague cap on an otherwise nuanced account. The writing here is also rather dry. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination – it’s more invisible than anything – and I’m spoiled by the last nonfiction I read. Still, it’s a consideration.

On balance, this is definitely a book you will like if you like that sort of thing. Otherwise it will be deeply dull. Luckily, I like that sort of thing.
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Nonfiction. A reconstruction of the life of John Robinson, white collar criminal turned serial killer. The title is a bit misleading, actually, as this book covers much more than Robinson’s eventual adoption of the internet as hunting ground for new sexual and financial victims. Just as a portrait of a criminal life, this book is riveting (this would be something I like, because I really like that sort of thing). Robinson conducted an extraordinary forty year campaign of lies, trickery, financial schemes, uncountable relationships, sexual domination, and murder, to say nothing of raising four children and being an active member of his community. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the book is the way it tells the story of Robinson’s women, his victims reaching from beyond the grave to catch him in mistakes, and his wife and daughters rallying to savagely defend him. The book mostly steers clear of the more idiot TV moves – he’s a killer because his mother was cold – and it maintains an impressive control of fact and speculation and psychology.

A little bit of history here; Douglas was instrumental in starting the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and ran it for many, many years. He’s brilliant and perceptive. But, well, man’s got issues. Most of which had no business in this refreshingly objective book. I was particularly unimpressed when he gave the full names of psychiatrists who had examined Robinson during a prison stay and reported him sane and safe. Arguments about the supremacy of, well, himself over mental health professionals aside, that’s just tacky. Also, I’m not going to forgive him this sentence, offered while discussing one of Robinson’s early victims, for either content or syntax: “Sometimes she acted as if she were hardly disabled at all, racing other people in wheelchairs at the mall and enjoying the thrill of beating them and exploding into laughter.”
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Fiction. Mysteries. Two more in his Alex Delaware series about child psychologist turned police consultant, the former from the middle and the latter the series introduction. I dug Monster -- it plays to the series strengths, sticking to the psychopathology as a tool for understanding crimes, and interesting crimes at that. Unfortunately, When the Bough Breaks did not play nearly so well with me. Kellerman's later dab hand with interesting secondary characters is undeveloped here, and Delaware's clinical evaluations of the people around him which make the later books interesting are clumsy, patronizing, and sometimes offensive here. Also, the last page of this book pissed me off so much with its disgusting, amateur respect for vigilante justice that I was literally speechless with outrage. I'm glad Kellerman found his feet later on, because this early attempt is deeply uninspiring.
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Fiction. Four mysteries in Kellerman's series featuring a child psychologist and police consultant. I probably shouldn’t have started at random like I did,because the first I tried (and most recently published of the bunch) was disappointing. I kept on, though, and I'm glad I did. Kellerman's strengths are with his original calling in psychology, aberrant behavior, and children. He has a deft, vivid hand with dysfunction, and a keen understanding of the system. The earlier published books I read employ this to the hilt, building compelling mysteries around family and illness and avoiding the pitfalls of improbable
plots, complete lack of children and patients in general, and frankly dull detective work from Flesh and Blood. If I wanted to read a formula detective story I'd -- oh, wait, I wouldn't want to at all. I'm hoping this isn't a general series trend.
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Fiction. Narrative of anorexia, hospitalization, sexuality, and love. The smartest thing about this book is the way it repossesses anorexia from popular conception, transforming it from an external "you are sick because you are a woman and you want us to see you thinner" into a deeply internal experience of control, which is far closer to the truth when you're talking about five foot eight women who are ninety pounds and who are dying and who will not eat. Unfortunately, the last quarter of the book falls flat in that way it does when the author realizes she needs something clear and decisive to happen, but can't commit herself to anything. Clever, though, with some complex religious overtones and some interesting, if confused, attempts to draw it all together into a narrative of suffering and beauty and deprivation and control and love. First novel, I suspect.
lightreads: a partial image of a etymology tree for the Indo-European word 'leuk done in white neon on black'; in the lower left is (Default)
Nonfiction. Diary entries from a psychologist and mental illness sufferer as her pregnancy progresses. Intense, fragmented, strangely refractive, like the book is a giant crystal set to catch the light of her story. She's a talented writer in that imagistic way which I can appreciate but never quite adore, and she struggles with questions of motherhood and responsibility that I find deeply compelling. Worth it for the personal face on the surprisingly common
phenomenon of pregnancy-amplified mental illness, and for a mature grappling with the ethics of psychotropic medication while expecting.


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